Teaching Artist Spotlight: Elia Enid Cadilla

We recently talked with Elia Cadilla, our newest addition to the Teaching Artist Spotlight series. Elia has done research for the FILIUS Institute, part of the School of Medicine of the University of Puerto Rico (among other projects, a study about the effect of theater in the rehabilitation process of female convicts.) Cadilla teaches Acting for Film and TV at the University of Sacred Heart, and directs the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation Theater Program since late 2001. Elia speaks on the current effects of pandemic on carceral settings, the role of the arts and radical empathy during this time period, and the ways in which she believes the intersection of creation and justice might help to improve our collective societies.

  JACAs we navigate this unprecedented time across our national landscape, what challenges have emerged in your work with artists, specifically those who are impacted by the criminal justice system?

EC: This is a complex question, with a complex answer. The main negative effect is frustration, both for the ones who are still inmates, as for the ones already free. Ironically enough, the situation – in terms of sheer survival – can be more dire for the ones out of prison than for the ones inside. The ones still incarcerated have food, lodging, medical attention. We’ve had to help out several of the women outside through our non profit, which is NGO, because many didn’t have the necessary tools to handle this situation. Many times they have to accept the most menial jobs, which don’t have benefits such as health insurance, for even though unemployment benefits have been extended for people who don’t usually receive them, some don’t have the tools to navigate the system, or lack a proper ID, and so on and so forth. On the other hand, those inside the prison are experiencing a type of incarceration they had left behind when they joined the theater group, mixed with a new restriction, which is the lack of family visits to prevent contagion. They communicate with their loved ones by phones provided by the Department but lack, of course, physical contact. However, in my communications with members of the group, I find there is a general understanding that this affects the whole population, not just them, and that these restrictions have managed to keep them healthy. They have access to information from outside, and are aware that some prisons in other states and countries have horrific stories going on. That doesn’t detract from their desire to go out and do their work, and see their families, but it makes it less hard to bear. The males of the Correctional Theater reside in a correctional institute that houses programs with certain privileges, and they’re concentrated right now in exercising to stay in acting form, and writing new ideas to work on as soon as we can resume our activities. The females reside in an area of the women’s prison, and are not as well organized as the men. This responds to patterns established in their own communities, and is one of the situations we deal with in the Program, but it’s a work in progress. The net result is that it’s easier for the men to manage their frustration at their inability to perform their job as actors and educators, but in general they are all coping, because they have something to look forward to.

JAC: What action do you feel is necessary to alleviate the safety concerns that incarcerated people face, in light of the Coronavirus crisis?

EC: All prisons should have a robust health system, access to prompt medical care, and a crisis management capacity that has been sadly lacking in many prisons, both stateside and in many countries, from what I infer from the different news leaking out of some facilities, and from what transpired in our zoom meeting this past week. As far as what action is needed, I can refer to our own experience here. The minute the magnitude of the covid threat to health was ascertained, on March 13, the Secretary of the PR Department of Correction and Rehabilitation ordered a lockdown eliminating access to all civilians not indispensable for vital operations, with an organized plan that included checking temperatures of any indispensable personnel before allowing access to the institutions, with observation and testing in place, established correctional officers’ shifts rotation, preventive isolation of any possible source of contagion, such as inmates that had to go to hospital, and upon return were quarantined until proven clean. It hasn’t been easy. A lot of people have had to work remote to ensure safe conditions for the inmates, but it has worked. All our inmates are covid-free. The 2 that pop up in statistics are two juveniles who came in already contaminated, were isolated at once and treated. If you have that kind of preventive crisis protocols, all concerns will not go away, of course; families will still want to see their loved ones and send them things, etc., but the bottom line here is we have to protect the lives of incarcerated people and stop the virus spread. A good management plan, such as instituted here in Puerto Rico, will accomplish that. Of course, nothing in the world is foolproof and we might have some cases in the future, but the situation has been managed successfully, so far.

JAC: As you know, the JAC is focused on ways in which art can connect those in the prison system with those on the outside. How has this relationship been jeopardized by COVID-19? How have you been keeping connections active during this time?

EC: It’s very difficult to balance safety with social connectivity in such a dangerous scenario as covid-19 presents for an incarcerated population; heck, it’s very difficult for the rest, non-captive population, with a great deal of stress and psychological damage taking its toll on a lot of people. The theater’s usual chores have literally, been one alleviating factor that has contributed to helping them cope. They have kept on writing, exercising, inventing alternatives to keep on with their acting through virtual strategies, etc. They recently sent me a proposal to perform by some platform through the sergeant, but it was one I had already presented to the administration. Regardless, I’m sending it also, in support of the already proposed tactic, but I’m conscious that getting it implemented will take some time. We’ve kept in touch through several avenues. One, their families. Even though not all inmates have a supporting, caring family, quite a few more than usual do when it comes to the theater group. This is because we foster family relations in different ways: we try to have relatives assist activities at open venues: theaters, for example, where anyone can attend. Usually the Secretary or the Sub Secretary (both very favorable, through the years, to the Theater Program) attends such an activity, and up to the very last one, they have authorized at the end of the performance relatives getting close to the inmates and congratulating them, hugs and expressions of affection included. The pride in families when they see their previously errant relative standing on a theater stage, applauded for their artistic work and their honesty (for the plays often depict the route that led them behind bars, and their reflection and repentance as well), have many times created a new bond of communication and respect between the inmate and his/her family. I try to keep in touch with those families that respond positively, and also with what are called “counseling friends” – people from all walks of life that decide to sponsor an inmate and give them some of emotional support and even sometimes some financial assistance for their more immediate needs, such as depositing money for their phone calls (which are very expensive, as we all know), and other urgent things. Two, our own team – the correctional officers and the penal case worker who see them during their shifts, let me know how they are coping, and advise them while at the same time letting them know what I’m doing to keep the Program going during this time. Three, I keep in touch with the commander of the institution, who is very favorable to the Theater Program (because they have an excellent behavior in and out of the institution, and help out in anything needed, plus keep their living quarters immaculate – part of their theatrical discipline) and with whom I maintain an open communication.

JAC: The JAC, as it grows, will continue to seek out and implement a vision of how to better support teaching artists. In your view, what does a supportive network need to include?

 EC: Knowledge. Powerful networking. Funding. Not necessarily in that order. Funding is probably of the first order. Regardless of our commitment, our reptilian brain commands us to survive – food, lodging, health needs are fundamental. Most artists have never been the most savvy when it comes to making money a priority (first-hand knowledge speaks). But when the urge to survive slaps you in the face, it’s a must needs that has to be addressed immediately. And there the powerful networking and the knowledge comes in. We have to be able to identify possible sources of funding. People with the knowledge of where to find accessible grants, interested philanthropic or high profile personalities that can attract them, people with knowledge to create platforms that attract a lot of traffic and hence, support through the acquisition of high visibility… I can go on, but they are the same rules I have applied as a producer to my own productions in the past, and these are all very connected. You need one to get the other, and so we reach the egg and hen dilemma. If we all pool our resources together, the goals will move forward faster.

JAC: What has been the most rewarding part of your experience working with incarcerated artists?

EC: No contest there: to see how their lives change completely. Even before they are able to go home free, they change. I’ve seen people who came from being drug dealers, prostitutes, addicts, gunners for the punto (the drug dealing business), thieves, car hijackers, you name it, become actors, artisans, writers, preachers even, for even though I do not participate myself in organized religion I do applaud the ones who look for it in order to deal with their past lives, as sometimes they need to feel God has forgiven them, and so they can forgive themselves and start anew. I keep track of many of my ex students. They send me information about their new lives, jobs, mates, homes, etc., and it’s a source of joy that we all share with each member of the support group and with other inmates that look up to the ones that have made it, and see in them that they can make it, too.

JAC: As our art networks look to the future, how do you hope the Coronavirus pandemic, as well as this period of isolation, alters the public’s understanding of the justice system?

EC: One of the jokes (we use humor a lot in the Program, in order to cope) we have shared within the Program has been: well, now a lot of people know how it feels to be trapped in a cell, to not be able to walk down the street when you feel like it. We’ve discussed how this new awareness can maybe change the way some people view incarcerated people, and perhaps influence lawmaking in some way or other. If you ask my personal opinion, I feel we have a long way ahead. The US has less than 5% of the world population and yet it has  22% of the world’s imprisoned population, far ahead of several totalitarian regimens. There is too much feeling of “otherness” towards imprisoned persons, and I firmly believe that we can change that through the arts, for I have seen it happen here in our system. When I began, almost 19 years ago (and I had already had a close look at the system though volunteer work with imprisoned youth), the officers almost uniformly disliked the Theater Program. What helped me in the beginning was that I was a well-known and respected artist, and so the manifestations tended to be polite in general, but there were also quite a few not-so-polite ones. Now (even though there’s still rejection from some quarters), we have no problem getting officers who want to be part of the Program and it’s actually a coveted position. Very soon some people who were skeptical about theater in prison saw the change in attitudes and behavior and recognized it as a positive movement towards rehabilitation and many became advocates of what the arts could do to change lives.

JAC: How did you become involved in this work? What was your path to where you are today?

EC: It’s funny how you manage to ask a question that sounds simple but its answer is anything but. It’s been a long road. I believe free will and fate coexist happily, thank you very much. Early in my career, my looks (then), would get me TV bimbo and femme fatale roles time and again, but I felt a very strong pull towards social theater and the minute a very respected theater director, Victoria Espinosa, cast me in a one-woman show as an aging, run-down prostitute (I was still very young, and so it was a fantastic characterization for me, which are my favorite roles), and got rave reviews for it, someone asked me to do it in a low-income residential project. From then on, somehow, I would get offered opportunities to work with low-income, high risk populations, both in PR and when I moved to NY. There I lived 8 years, and I found myself splitting time between acting in theater, TV and doing some film work, but giving a lot of my time to social theater. I taught at the Human Solidarity Institute (mostly to immigrants), ASPIRA – to disadvantaged youth, and the New Federal Theater, at the Henry St. Settlement Playhouse, almost always with disadvantaged populations. When we returned to PR for family reasons, after several years in high-profile work in TV stations and theaters, I eventually gravitated once again towards teaching high-risk behavior populations, and when the then Secretary of Correction and Rehabilitation looked for someone to teach at the women’s prison, it was almost by default that my name came up. The first year there were 4 teachers – 3 males actors working with the male population and I with the females. One year later I was the only one left, and wound up directing the whole project.

Elia co-authored an article for an arbitrated publication (IRB approved), about a small-scale (3 subjects sample) research study on how and why theater can be a rehabilitation tool. Below is that article.

CORRECTIONAL THEATER PROGRAM 2020

People can learn more about Elia’s work at:
Facebook: Elia Enid Cadilla
Twitter: @EliaEnidCadilla

 

Actress, producer, director and writer, Elia Enid Cadilla has represented Puerto Rico in film and theater festivals. Cadilla was Chairperson of the first Cultures of the Third World Symposium at the United Nations, and has received honors and awards for her work in several fields of endeavors. She was a member of the Board of Directors of the PR Association of Film and Audiovisual Producers for over a decade and hosted the First Puerto Rican Coproduction Forum for Ibero American Films. 

Cadilla produced and directed the TV film “Cal y Arena”, based on a story she co-wrote. She’s producing and codirecting the documentary “Cicatrices” (“Scars”), about formerly incarcerated females who have used theater as a rehabilitation tool. She also wrote the series “De carne y hueso” (Flesh and blood), inspired in the real-life stories of incarcerated men and women. 

She produced, co-wrote and directed the series “Después del Adiós” (Beyond Goodbyes), lauded by the media as the best production of this genre in Puerto Rico. She’s written, produced and directed short film series for the Office of Women Affairs, and has produced and directed films for TV, musical videos, television specials and public service advertising campaigns. She coproduced and wrote the script for “Múltiples Ellas”, breaking the Performing Arts Center’s attendance record, a statistic that remained unequaled for several years. Cadilla produced, among other projects, seven environmental education festivals (with concerts, multimedia exhibitions, recycling, reforestation and beach cleanup drives and educational conferences), and was awarded and recognized both by government agencies and private environmental organizations. 

Cadilla was a leading figure in soap operas. Her roles include costarring in TV films and the Spanish-Puerto Rican film “Agua con sal”. A recent performance was in “The Vessel”, starring Martin Sheen. She produced and starred in Cyrano de Bergerac, receiving the best actress award of the Drama Critics Circle, which also chose the play as the year’s best.

Making Meaning: a caged bird sings

by Page Dukes

I was released from prison last May, after serving ten years for a crime I committed as a heroin-addicted teenager. I have spoken publicly many times since, about the decisions and circumstances that led me to the criminal justice system. However, at the Art for Justice Forum held at Emory University Law School, I was asked to talk about the role music has played in my life, how it both kept me free on the inside and has helped me to have confidence and livelihood in my newfound freedom.

I was around music my entire life. The daughter of musicians, I toured the country and sang on stage with my mother from as early as 3 years old. I played the cello in elementary school, switching to the guitar when I discovered punk rock. My best friend and I formed a band when we were 13 and played on stages (with big black X’s on our hands) all over Atlanta. It was around that time that I began to “experiment” with drugs— my ambition to use matched and eventually surpassed my ambition to play music. By 18 I was shooting a deadly mix of heroin and cocaine daily, and by my 21st birthday I’d committed armed robbery.

In the jail, I got clean for the first time in many years. I realized all I had given up, all I had to lose and to live for. At the Art for Justice forum, I remembered the time a volunteer let me play her guitar after a jailhouse church service—how grateful I had been to her, how I probably scared her with my weeping, and how that moment was the first time I had felt anything in a long, long time. That was perhaps the first in a series of releases—in which I opened up a little at a time, and began to grow, in the darkest, dankest of places: the basement of the Fulton County Jail at 901 Rice Street.

There were long years when I didn’t get to play at all. I sang a lot when it was all I had. I remember finding spaces where the acoustics carried and amplified my voice— in the dungeon below the courthouse, where we sat shackled, anxiously awaiting an uncertain fate, or to be sent back without any answers at all; or in the visitation room, where we waited to be “shaken down,” having watched our families leave crying, trying to reassure them that we were okay.

It was in that room that I last saw Kelly Gissendanner, who was killed after 18 years on death row, having turned her life around and become a pillar of hope and encouragement in the prison community. She’d been visiting with her children in the room where they kept her quarantined from the rest of us. After her death warrant was issued, they had stopped letting her attend church and classes with us. I knew it may be the last time I would see her, so I sang for her. I cried, and she cried, and she thanked me. In Kelly’s last hours, she sang “Amazing Grace.”

Music is something that could not be taken from us. In a place designed to dehumanize you, where you’re told you are worthless—a uniform, a number, a discarded sub-citizen—you must make your own meaning. The system is not designed to rehabilitate, but to “correct–” to punish. I knew where my meaning was—music was my first religion—and I also believed that I would survive and thrive no matter how large the obstacles I had placed in my way.

How many others bought the view that their lives were worthless? That they were defined by their crimes, that they will never be anything more than a number, a statistic, an “offender.” The system will strip you of everything, even your humanity, if you let it. And once that happens what do you have left to lose?

The first panelist, Rachel May, a co-founder of Synchronicity Theatre, hosts theater workshops, where they give young girls in juvie the platform to tell their own stories. I remembered young girls who were in solitary confinement until their eighteenth birthdays. I remembered the ones who felt they had nothing to lose, facing long sentences, longer even than the one I had faced in my youth. And I hope that they find the freedom I did in music and in art and in words, that they will inspire others inside, and one day speak to an audience who wants to know how they made it through.

Another panelist had been making art since a childhood teacher had encouraged him to do so. In prison, he honed his portraiture skills, capturing the character of each person who lived in his unit, in graphite on paper. Like music, it was more than just a talent. It helped him to know who he was, and how he could serve a purpose in a void of meaning. It also helped him to develop his skill—one that would sustain him when he faced the task of finding work with a record.

I sang and played in the chapel services for my last three years at Lee Arrendale State Prison. I’ve since met women who tell me they remember hearing me sing in church— and they thanked me. It humbled me, that my voice and my music could have such an effect, could be a conductor for the same peace, beauty and transcendence that it brought me.

I talked and talked and talked at the Forum, until I realized I had taken up all the time. It was strange and wonderful to be asked about my experience with music in prison. The transformative power of art is no new idea—everyone has felt it, and yet we forget that the people who have been condemned, hidden out of sight and out of mind, need it too. The artist in a world without color, the musician in a room with only her voice bouncing off cement walls, the writer stripped down to the basics of pen and paper and his words—they are bound and confined, but their inner lives are rich, and they matter.

About the guest contributor:

Page Dukes is a formerly incarcerated writer, musician and college student. She grew up in Atlanta, the daughter of a touring singer/ songwriter who brought her along on the road during school breaks. She experienced life on the road with her mom and played in her own band back home, but started using drugs in her early teens, and by the age of 18 was hopelessly addicted to heroin. She committed armed robbery at 20 and served the mandatory minimum sentence of ten years in prison. While incarcerated she taught writing classes in the GED program, studied theology with the Atlanta Theological Association, trained and re-homed shelter dogs with the Forever Friends Canine Rescue, and performed with the Voices of Hope Choir. She was released last May and since has studied journalism and philosophy, worked as a reporting intern at the Marshall Project in New York this summer and the publications chief at the Roar, Piedmont College’s student media. As a founding member of the Athens Reentry Collaborative, she and several post-incarcerated peers work with academics and advocates to provide resources and support to reentering citizens in Athens, Georgia. She recently celebrated 11 and a half years clean.

About the Art for Justice Forums:

California Lawyers for the Arts was awarded one of 30 grants from the new Art for Justice Fund to facilitate six Art for Justice Forums in Michigan, Texas, Alabama, Georgia, New York and California during 2018. These one-day forums are designed to engage the arts in justice reform efforts and increase support for arts in corrections programs, as well as delinquency prevention and re-entry services. More than 200 persons, including elected legislators, artists, returned citizens, educators, arts and justice reform organizations, and others participated in the first two forums at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor on April 3 and at the Houston Museum of African American Culture on July 14 . A short video of the Michigan Art for Justice Forum is linked here. Videos of the plenary panel sessions are also available here. The Defender Network.com published photographs from the Texas Art for Justice Forum, while the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition summarized the day’s discussions in a blog report.

Time Spent – Making Art in Prison

by Rebecca Kelly

People can start with what seems like an ever-renewable supply anger and despair. This emotional energy is sometimes the initial fuel for the creative act. But that energy may also prove kindling for a different kind of renewable energy, a positive drive. Something fresh and wonderful can be created from the dark place of rumination and frustration, giving back release to that individual and sending forward something positive into the world.

  • Art is restorative, an outlet, transformative
  • The act of creativity leads one on an engrossing adventure for the soul, the mind, the body
  • Esteem building – creating something that can be admired by peers and family and the outer world
  • Connections with the outside – valuable in forging a future
  • Validation of self worth, of productivity, of use of time
  • Gives value to time spent, creates a sense of productivity, value to a product, an understanding of sharing, a way of processing and telling oneself one’s story, a way of integrating and transforming  the personal story, a way to give
  • Passes time innocently and that brings a release
  • A new understanding of self emerges as creative output provides inspiration, self worth  even joy
  • Creativity brings to the mind solace, peace, intention, healing, and helps to organize time
  • Art is the re-creation of yesterday, inhabiting today and the making of tomorrows

Families who have a loved one in prison experience a thankfulness and an amazement by the growth of the “artist in prison.”

At first, it may be the pencil sketches on the backs of forms or random pieces of paper that come home. Then, the sheer inventiveness becomes apparent in the ideas, the way the individual creates paint and brushes – from juice, jam, from coffee, using toothbrushes. He creates when he can be in his cell alone – when others are at chow, or at night, or whenever he can find privacy. In the beginning it was intensely private. He only shared his work through the mail in letters home. But it is constant.

At first, the individual doesn’t know where to GO in prison – no place seems safe. Everyone seems to want to know about your business, and to rank you according to your past, where you are from, what you did, who you think you are now.

So there is the chapel, a community room, the sports option. There is administrative segregation (solitary).  But none of these feel safe for different reasons. How do you overcome the constant need for vigilance and the fear of being singled out or physically hurt?

There are long waiting lists for prison jobs. If one is fortunate to get a job, the daily routine keeps one relatively focused and safe for a period of many months. There are scant prison education programs. But with luck and persistence one might enroll in a 10-week group course in business, or cognitive behavior therapy workshop, and actually benefit. To note accomplishments in education or sports, the individual receives an achievement document, a citation. Congratulations, you passed the time and you did this! Families hungrily collect the awards and citations.

I began to search for a way to share his artwork with others – beyond the family. I looked for online galleries, made inquiries, visited prison art exhibits, in an attempt to make connections, to share his work with directors of these art organizations. I made an online slide show so his works could be seen more readily by friends and family. The effort itself was fascinating, encouraging, supportive. There are wonderful people on the outside engaged in projects – keeping track, looking in, drawing out, understanding…

Maybe he wasn’t ready to define himself as a person interested in art. Maybe he didn’t value or recognize his creative output. But his family DID. His extraordinary art efforts were already playing a healing role in the family, a relief from the despair and shock of what had happened. We were happy to share his work with friends. It is a beautiful, unique way to show his development in a wholly positive light, and to bring pride into our communications.

Only a year ago, he wrote in September, “I do like art, but I don’t really think it defines who I am.  I understand that everyone out there on the street only sees that part of me, but I mainly commit so much to art because that is the only constructive thing to do here that keeps me busy. To tell you the truth, painting, at times, has been pretty painful. I am not comfortable with being known as the inmate artist who suffers from a mental disability. How cliche.

And then, right after that – he discovered the art room. Who goes there?

It was his 5th year in prison, and it had been a particularly rough year of unfortunate events far beyond his control. He marveled that he hadn’t known about the art room earlier. Perhaps he couldn’t imagine in prison – that there would even exist such a “free” place as the art room. Yet, in his prison, there are actually two art rooms.

He has had to learn to respect and accept his own “drive,” and his ability. Many artists in many fields, whether it is theater, dance, music or art, struggle with that. He has always been pragmatic about his creative output. When he speaks of it, he focuses more on the technical explorations and achievements, than on the “meaning” or the effect on the viewer, or even his own creative intention. But outside feedback has played a vital role in validation, and has contributed to his development and persistence.

Now, his work can be seen in wonderful online galleries (Prison Arts Coalition PAC, and The Confined Arts, Isaac’s Quarterly) and in an online slide show of recent works. His watercolors have been used “on the street” by Solitary Watch (national), and as a menu cover design for Edwins Restaurant, (Cincinnati, OH). It continues to be a fascinating journey to observe how he expresses repeating themes in his works over the years (eg. a tree), and how he diligently teaches himself new techniques in watercolor, charcoal, multi-media. His knowledge and tools have come a long way from the lemonade and coffee painted flowers.

Today he is teaching a 12-week course in watercolor technique. He encourages other artists-mates to send works to online galleries. He has found a group of supportive, like-minded creative individuals who encourage and challenge each other to grow as artists. He has found a path he can travel, and he is bringing others with him along the way.

 

About this guest contributor:

Rebecca Kelly, daughter of a career diplomat, grew up in London, England, Khartoum, Sudan, and Washington, DC.  She trained at the School of Washington Ballet.  She holds a BA in Oriental Religion from Bryn Mawr College.  She is the Artistic Director and Choreographer for Rebecca Kelly Ballet. She lives with her husband in New York City and in the Adirondack Mountains.

 

Climbing The Walls: Incarceration and Art

by Todd Hollfelder
About the guest contributor: “Though I don’t like being labeled, or “summed up” by definitions, there are two tags I must live with.  First, I am an artist… I have been my entire life.  I dabble in different mediums and play with many forms of expression.  I call myself an illustrator because the intent of all my work is to share a story.  Places I’ve been.  Things I’ve seen.  Feelings I’ve dealt with.  Second, I am a felon… I will be one for the rest of my life.  I was released from the Wisconsin Department of Corrections custody in April, 2018.  I was allowed to concentrate on my work, watch it mature, and see other’s talents grow.  Through creative competition we became a collective.”   
Self Portrait 1 Hat
Self Portrait

Hi!  My name is Todd or, for the past 3 years, Wisconsin Department of Corrections #632011.  I will have my numeric “nickname” for the next 6 years in Community Custody.  For those unfamiliar with the term, I will be on “paper” and continuously monitored.  I was incarcerated 2/13/2015 for violating the terms of my bond and in July 2015 was handed a 4-year sentence, mandatory release date of February 10, 2019… my 51st birthday.  Fortunately, I’m a non-violent offender.  I integrated smoothly into the prison lifestyle and routine.  For this I was eligible for an Earned Release Program and cut 10 months off my ‘bid’.  Unfortunately, the time I saved on my time ‘in’ was tacked on to my early release.

Let me tell you a little about where I come from!  I grew up in an upper middle-class suburb of Milwaukee, WI.  My family isn’t what I would call wealthy but we definitely were raised “privileged”.  We were never denied anything and rarely heard the word ‘no’.  I believed I was invincible… my family would get me out of every situation I got into.  If I was broke, they’d give me money.  If my bills were late, they would catch them up.  When I got arrested, they covered my bail and got me the best possible legal representation.  I was a well-adjusted kid who never got into any trouble… well, except getting suspended for smoking on school grounds and skipping gym class.  I have 7 DUIs under my belt now and never was in prison.  This time there was no getting out of it!  The Judge told me clearly, “… you’ve gotten away with this too many times and haven’t received enough punishment…”.  He handed down the sentence of 4 years in, 6 years out for a grand total of 10 years, the maximum punishment he could legally impose.

So, here I am at 47 years old on my way to the prison Intake facility!  I’m in handcuffs and shackles, locked in the back of a bus, with a bunch of ‘real’ criminals.  Most of these guys are murderers, rapists and abusers (they’d done things I couldn’t even fathom).  My offense didn’t hurt anyone… I’d had no accidents or damaged any property.  I’m thinking, “OMG”, what are these people going to do to someone like me?  Am I going to have to live with these men or be housed with ‘lesser’ offenders?  What are the living conditions going to be?  We’ve all seen the movies… is it really like that?

Warut Visitation Rules
Visitation Rules

I wasn’t so much scared of my situation, it was more anxiety that dominated my mind.  The more I was around these soon-to-be “roommates” the more I decided I wasn’t going to be around them.  I withdrew into reading novels.  I found it a way to transport myself to other places, different stories and a better class of people.  In Intake we weren’t allowed to have much.  I read about 5 books a week, all day and night long, to take me away and avoid speaking to the characters I was forced to room with.  I was so thankful when I got moved out of intake into a regular medium-security location where I could finally purchase my own clothes, shoes, TV and hobby supplies!!

I found television to be a very temporary, mindless escape… maybe solely a distraction from the world I was residing in.  Books are great but reading became more of a tedium than a diversion.  I had ordered a sketchpad and some drawing pencils, colored pencils and pastels but I hadn’t actually created anything in a long time.  As we all get older, responsibilities and obligations often force us to put our passions to the side.  While I’d created art on the outside, and I was devoted to it, I didn’t have the time to express myself the way I truly desired to.  Now, on a forced break from reality, I didn’t have to worry about anything.  I had no bills to pay.  I had no commitments to family or work.  Even though it was barely edible, I didn’t have to think about what I was going to eat, go grocery shopping or cook.  I could go to bed and get up whenever I felt like it… except for count times and the occasional fire drill!  It seemed to be the perfect time to return to my first love, drawing.

My first attempts were primitive, at least in my eyes, but they impressed others.  I didn’t care about, or need, the approval of others but it was flattering.  These drawings were/are a part of me!  I could transport myself to new worlds, make them tangible and be however I wanted them to be.  My fellow inmates would sometimes question my images.  They didn’t understand artistic vision doesn’t have to be representational… it doesn’t have to consist of recognizable imagery.  My work wasn’t for them though, it was for me!  I refused to draw portraits for them.  I absolutely wouldn’t make greeting cards!  My work is art… not crafts!  Later on, I did start to do portraits but there were a few conditions.  I didn’t set a “price” for my work but they had no input into the finished project and I would accept tokens of gratitude.  They couldn’t view the piece until it was complete.  And don’t bother me, it’ll be done when it’s done.

I must explain that I’m not an anti-social kind of guy!  I’d made a conscious decision to separate myself from the environment to which I was subjected.  I didn’t want to get to know anybody.  I knew I’d do my time for me, get it over with, and never have to see any of these people ever again.  The chances of myself, and most of the others, being in the same social circles and spaces on the outside was slim.  In this context, my art became my downfall.  The more I created the more others wanted to talk to me.  They wanted to see my work.  They wanted to talk about my projects.  They wanted to show me their talents… with words, visual images, crochet, needlepoint, leathercraft, beading, some dance and the list goes on within the perimeters of the prison’s restrictions.   For many this was their first exposure to expressing themselves in ways that weren’t destructive to themselves or others.  And they were proud of their work.  They valued my opinions and asked for my suggestions as to how to improve their visions.  Even though I was keeping my distance and not letting down my “walls” (I thought), I developed superficial (again, I thought) relationships… more than acquaintances but not quite friends.

Fantasy Family Portrait
Fantasy Family Portrait

To elaborate on the ‘I thought’ statements.  I believed I was hiding behind “walls” to protect myself from getting to know the other convicts in my personal space 24/7/365.  What I failed to recognize was that my work, and my input into theirs’, slowly exposed pieces of myself.  I gained insight into their lives because, when asked to view or make suggestions on their works, I could see into their minds.  I could read their emotions about where they’ve been, are currently and where they want to be in the future.  We developed an unspoken form of communication.  A way to maintain our masculinity while “discussing” our feelings of fear, on relationships, about caring for one another.  All the things men don’t usually talk about with each other.

One of my favorite statements, I heard it all the time, was “I can’t draw.” Or “I can’t do that”.  There is no right or wrong in art.  There is no good or bad in creation.  I’d tell people, “Yes, you can!”.  It doesn’t matter if it’s a stick figure or a colorful “scribble” with colored pencils.  “I’ll help inspire you!”.  “Are you having fun?”, “Relaxing?”, “Releasing the frustration of another taxing day?”.  The point being, are you feeling anything?!!  Art is about reaction.  If you have an opinion or elicit a reaction you’re alive.  You’re expressing a view, a viewpoint and that’s creation.  I was able to introduce technique but had to remind guys not to try to do what I do… one of me is enough.  Be your own person!  See through your own eyes!  Interpret according to your own beliefs and values!  Of course, one of the toughest principles is always OBSERVE, OBSERVE, OBSERVE!  Shut your mouth and listen… don’t just hear, LISTEN.  Open your eyes but don’t just look, SEE!  Absorb the good and the bad around you.  Visualize what makes you happy.  Express the things that piss you off.  Whatever it is, get it out!!

The arts are one of the few positive things about prison.  For me, it allowed the opportunity to see my craft mature.  Looking at my early works with only #2 pencil on typing paper to what I’m accomplishing, and still growing, now is amazing.  I saw others experiment successfully in a variety of mediums.  One of my co-artist inmates, who claimed he’d never been creative, composed a spectacular “collage” (all hand drawn and cut out) representing his favorite football team, the San Francisco 49ers.  Others did brilliant portraits from photographs of their loved ones using a grid technique.  Patterns were available for purchase to those who preferred to work in brightly colored yarns.  Some got their friends and family to send them adult coloring book pages to enjoy and release tension.  It wasn’t unusual to see groups of guys sitting around the same table conversing and immersed in their activities of choice!

Sometimes, however, our efforts were stifled by the subjective rules of the DOC.  For example; I drew a New Orleans Mardi Gras scene in which there was a woman flashing her breasts to get beads that were thrown from the balconies.  Another inmate drew a very artistic topless woman with large boobs.  He got cited for “inappropriate material” where, when the correctional officers were questioned about it, my drawing was considered acceptable because of the context.  We had to be very careful about anything depicting violence but not all was seen as unacceptable.  Subjects construed as racist could land one in the “hole” but, again, it depended on context.  I illustrated my frustrations about the happenings in Ferguson, Missouri (I forget what year that was) depicting a racially diverse group defending themselves against the police while stores were being looted and cars were on fire.  It wasn’t considered unacceptable since the violence was implied more than vivid.  It was tricky to sometimes push the line as serious disciplinary action could be imposed upon you.  But really, who wants to concentrate on drawing bunnies and pretty flowers in a place where it is difficult to wake up in the morning and smile at your cellie!

NOLA 1949 Mardi Gras Gay Krewe
Mardi Gras 1949 – Krewe of Yuga

It’s really fascinating to look back on the whole experience now… even though it hasn’t been that long.  To think about the conversations that started over a drawing, a poem, or a song.  The feelings that were communicated without speaking.  The bonds created by my knowing, somewhere, someone may be thinking about the positive aspects of being incarcerated because my work is hanging on their wall or framed on their desk.  Even if it’s just held by a magnet on a refrigerator, I’ve impacted somebody else’s life in any number of ways.  A reminder of where we’ve been, where we’re going and to be thankful in the moment that we’ve survived (hopefully overcome) our shortcomings.  I like to believe some of the men I inspired, and who inspired me, have continued to pursue their newly found freedom of expression.  A constructive outlet for their emotions.  A diversion from returning to where they’ve been.  A way to create a future they can visualize.  In some way everyone is in a prison of their own creation….

Joan Rivers Cadillac Alone
Joan Rivers Alone in a Cadillac

 

Sports or Arts?

by Treacy Ziegler
About the guest contributor: Treacy Ziegler is a regular contributor to the PAC blog, and has been an exhibiting artist for the past 23 years. She studied painting and printmaking for four years at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. As a student she was awarded a J. Henry Scheidt Traveling Scholarship. Before studying art at PAFA, Ziegler received a Master in Social Work from the University of Pennsylvania working in the area of family therapy. Ziegler has been awarded two New York State Community Art Partnership Grants in painting and in printmaking. In 2009, Ziegler began exhibiting her work in prisons and created An Open Window, a project within the project of Prisoner Express in the Center For Transformative Action affiliated with Cornell University.  In this project she donates her artwork to prisons, develops in-prison art workshops, and creates through-the-mail-art curricula with a network of 2,300 prisoners throughout the United States, many who are in solitary confinement. Ziegler lives with her husband, Gary Weisman, a sculptor, in Newfield, New York.

Binaries are a way of being:  We can choose either “this” or “that;” or we can take this binary to the interpersonal where there is a “them against us.”   It is not surprising, therefore, that sports and arts are often pitted against each other.

Most often, sports and arts are in competition for financial support as in education with school boards asking,   “Do we drop sports or arts?”  Are sports ultimately privileged because of the much higher number of individuals attending sports events than those who attend art performances or exhibitions?  Why do we pay sports players more than artists?  How many contracts have been given to artists before a season in the studio?

In prison, arts often take a back seat to sports.  Jesse Osmun, prisoner at  Fort Dix Federal Correctional Institution recently wrote to me about his concern that the arts program was losing ground over the gym programs.

Jesse writes:
“Here at FCI Ft. Dix, we have a program for Hobbycraft/Arts that is run by inmates under the supervision of the recreation department and assigned staff. For the entire time I have been here, this program has run smoothly and had a dedicated space at the top floor of the Education building with actual classrooms and instruction by inmate instructors. These classrooms have worktables, lighting, basic supplies/tools, and good ventilation. These are all necessary for the program. No complaints about the space ever really came up. The program as it stands has strong leadership and dedicated hours and so is running better then it has in the past. Materials are purchased and arrive within a reasonable time frame. Tools and basic supplies are available, and classes fill very quickly.

However, more recently the staff decided that the best place to have the program is in the gym, competing with other recreational programs such as basketball, soccer, etc. and crammed into space that is not properly ventilated for use of materials such as oil paint, turpentine, glues, etc. Many of these areas are cramped and do not have proper lighting for programs such as drawing and painting. These areas are also subject to gym hours, meaning if the gym is closed, these programs cannot run.

 My current drawing class has 5-7 students with 10 or more active participants working on art projects in the room. It has been very active and well utilized, as are all the programs.  If these changes are made, the classes will be ultimately abandoned with the only kind of instruction being art instruction books that inmate will need to buy for themselves.  In addition, the inmates will not have ta dedicated place to work on art even on their own.”

 It’s easy to assume that money is the basis of such changes, but there are other dynamics working.

When I was a volunteer art teacher in a mid-west maximum-security men’s prison, under the direction of the programming director, the prison had a sophisticated art room where prisoners were allowed to work on their art on a regular basis.   There were some classes taught – mine being one – but each prisoner who was invited to the room (based upon behavior and ticket records) also had a dedicated space in which they could work; areas that I referred to as their “studios.”  The program director had minored in art in college developing an experience and understanding of art beyond what I typically see in prisons.

When that program director transferred to another prison, the subsequent program director, while very supportive of programming, had no experience whatsoever in art.   His background was in sports and recreation.  Unfortunately, the program and room lost its integrity as a place to create art and became more of a space for busywork.

This inability to understand art seems to be common in prison.  Well, lets be truthful, an inability to truly understand the depth of art is common in and out of prison.  Art’s existence has been challenged for a long time.  Some might argued since Plato threw out the poets from his Republics.  But an irrelevance of art seems even particularly so in the United States – how often does the average person in United States go to an art museum?

This lack of art experience is typical for most prisons in which I have volunteered. But in those prisons that did support a successful art program, there always seemed to be someone in authority who had first hand experience in art; maybe, they minored in art, had a spouse as an artist and so on.  A commitment to art in prison seems to demand that someone in authority have this first hand experience of art – call that person a lover of art.  How many lovers of art run prison, though?

A big discrepancy between someone who has first-and experience/commitment in art and someone who does not is that the former understands that art is not a recreation. This became apparent when I volunteered at a maximum-security men’s prison and each week the guards taunted me as to how was my “finger-painting” class going?  What they didn’t understand, and what I didn’t tell them (because would they really listen to me?) was that art is a means to self-discovery, self-reflection and self-challenge.

But as readers of this blog, I’m speaking to the already convinced.  If you would like to voice concern to the warden at Jesse’s prison the address is: Warden Hollingsworth,  Fort Dix Federal Correctional Institution, 5756 Hartford and Pointvile Rd. Fort Dix, NJ 08640.   Perhaps as artists involved in prison, you would like to share your positive experience with him (or us.)  Or share an experience where art and sports were integrated equally in prison (or anywhere).

A gallery selection of Jesse’s work completed in his art room at the prison:

1
Beauty Fades, Jesse Osmun
2
Detox, Jesse Osmun
3
New Growth, Jesse Osmun
4
by Jesse Osmun